Would you describe yourself as an ambitious person? Have your life choices been fueled by ambition, blind or otherwise? I only ask because that’s a question I’ve encountered a few times this week. In a podcast I listened to, a book I’m reading, and a radio interview I heard. All in the space of a couple of days. Weird, eh?

The other day I listened to the first episode of Alyson Walsh’s new venture. That’s Not My Age Podcast is a series of interviews with women of style (and substance, I might add). Alyson talks with them about aging, style, their careers, what they’re wearing, and what they’re reading. Her first interview is with Lucinda Chambers the former fashion director for British Vogue, a job from which she was (famously) fired a couple of years ago. You can read the (edited) Vestoj interview in which she talks about that, and about the fashion industry here. But Alyson doesn’t drag any of that old news up in her conversation with Lucinda Chambers. They natter on about fashion, Chambers’ life, and her new career adventures, including the clothing brand Colville which she co-founded.

I loved this interview for many reasons. Especially when the conversation wended its way around to how Chambers dresses, what she likes, and where she shops. I love that she said she loves Phoebe Philo who I love too. Ha. Too many loves. And I was fascinated by the discussion of how she and her partners are building their new brand Colville.

But I think what interested me most was her answer to Alyson’s question about ambition. Chambers says she has never been particularly ambitious, but she is “driven.” She distinguishes between the two terms by saying that, to her, drive is an internal thing, the push to do or be the very best you can, while ambition is more for external recognition. And she adds that oddly enough at age 58, she is now more ambitious than she’s ever been. Ambitious for Colville and for her undisclosed newest endeavour to excel, to become recognized, and successful.

We all seem to have our own definition of ambition, don’t we? I mean, of course we recognize that it’s something, an aim or goal, for which a person strives hard. But that striving can be spun as positive or negative. Especially when the ambition is more about “rank, fame, and power” than it is about doing one’s best or doing what’s best for others.

So yeah, this week I’ve been hearing about ambition all over the place.

I’ve been reading the latest in a series of mystery novels by Peter Grainger. I really like Grainger’s books. They are police procedurals, and the left-brained part of me, the rules and organization part, enjoys reading about the accumulation of evidence, and the various paths taken to follow up evidence with the aim of bringing a criminal to justice. But I also really love Grainger’s characters.

The series centers around Detective Sergeant David Smith and his team. Smith is an ex-chief inspector who, we’re told, took a demotion when his wife became ill following a particularly demoralising case. When the series starts Smith’s wife has died, and he has no desire to thrust himself back into a position of greater power, no desire to restart the corporate climb. But he is still an amazing detective: bright, quick-witted, notoriously anti-political, and idealistic, in a care-worn kind of way. Idealistic about getting it right, and by “it” I mean his job. And he is an amazing teacher/mentor to the young detectives on his team.

Grainger often deals with issues of ambition in his books. About how ambition and the selfish thirst for power can destroy an organization. He seems to take the Shakespearean view of the evils of ambition. You know, the one from Macbeth where Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” for power is seen to “o’er leap itself” and comes crashing down, destroying the ambitious and lots of innocent victims at the same time.

I know from my own experience that sometimes in education, ambition is derided. Not the hard work part, or the idea of being the best one can at what one does. But the rank and power part. Teachers whose earliest aim is to climb the corporate ladder rather than work with kids are often scorned by those who decide to remain in the classroom. And of course this isn’t always fair. I’ve worked with wonderful leaders, who took their passion for kids and for teaching with them when they left the classroom. And in consequence are the very best kinds of leaders because they’ve never forgotten what’s important. But I’ve also worked with the other kind. But let’s not go there.

I guess the kind of ambition that is derided in education, or in any field really, is the kind that is blind. Where the ambitious are blinded to the consequences of their actions except where it furthers their own aims. Lady Macbeth seems to think that Macbeth while ambitious does not have enough ruthlessness to achieve his goals, he doesn’t have what she calls the “illness should attend” ambition. That’s where she comes in. But of course we all know how that turned out.

In Grainger’s books his characters strive, mostly, to right wrongs. At least the sympathetic characters do. The ones we’re moved to view with contempt are those that, like Macbeth, strive for position and power that is unearned, and unwisely wielded. I found it interesting that in his latest book, Songbird: A Kings Lake Investigation, there is a very ambitious female detective whose views are a bit like Lucinda Chambers’. That one can achieve recognition, and even maybe power, by doing a job well.

And if ambitious people can achieve their ambitions by doing a job well, well, all the more power to them. Ha. Pun intended.

I started writing this post yesterday. But I became so fascinated by all things about Lucinda Chambers that I’ve dawdled. I love that she is starting something new at age almost 60. She’s changed gears, and is using the skills honed over years as fashion director in a whole new way. And she says she’s learning all kinds of new things. Especially about technology. She’s pretty inspirational, actually.

Have a listen to this interview. She was still at Vogue when it was recorded, but it explores aspects of her early life and her view of fashion that I found really interesting.

If you haven’t already checked out Alyson’s new podcast, you should. I’ve listened to all three of the interviews there. In fact with Hubby away this weekend fishing, it’s just been me and Alyson and Peter. Ha. I thought it was fun to hear Alyson’s voice for the first time. And her laugh. She sounds exactly like my friend Kristin when she laughs. Find out how to access the podcast here.

And if you’re interested in Peter Grainger’s books, there are 8 DC Smith books. They’re only available in digital format. The first book in Grainger’s series is An Accidental Death. You can find it here. I suggest reading them in order, there’s a lot of reference to previous books in the later ones. I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you click on my link and buy I will receive a commission.

I don’t think I am a particularly ambitious person. Although I am a perfectionist, and I do tend to throw myself into things. Not sure that makes me ambitious, or driven. It can, however, make me extremely exasperating to live with. At times.

How about you?


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From the archives


Perils of Perfectionism

I am a life-long perfectionist. And it has brought me nothing but trouble.

Doings in Bath

I have long wanted to visit Bath, England. And my time there did not disappoint. Especially my solitary Jane Austen fest.

Too Old to Be Cheugy?

Is your style cheugy? Are you a bit behind in getting on the trend bandwagon? Or do you eschew anyone else's idea of what you should wear?

33 thoughts on “Ambition. Blind, Blonde, or Otherwise”

  1. Interesting. To be honest I’m neither ambitious nor driven . I don’t think it is necessary to be either for a happy life but I can see that the human race needs ambitious & driven individuals . I just don’t have that hunger – perhaps I’m more of an old ‘hippy’ ? There are many things I care deeply about but that’s a different matter .
    I have bought the first Peter Grainger book -thanks for that .

  2. I retired from a career as a town planner about 18 months ago. I was driven to do a good job and like you, I’m a perfectionist, which can be good and bad, though I think that I learned to moderate the worst tendencies over the years. I was also ambitious for more interesting work, more responsibility and better remuneration. The ambition wasn’t there at the start of my career but I soon worked out that there were many others with fewer abilities but more ambition – mostly men, who had very high opinions of themselves;) – who were doing well and who I didn’t necessarily want to report to. So I developed ambition as well as drive and I enjoyed a fair degree of success at work. Being retired is a whole other thing. It’s taken me a while to find meaningful volunteer work. I recently started work as a relief English teacher for adult migrants, which wasn’t easy to get but I’ve now got a foot in the door and I’m very pleased.

    1. Good luck with the retirement thing, Maria. I’ve found that blogging is just the ticket for me to be able to channel my interests and my need to tell stories. Now that I no longer have a captive teenage audience. Ha.

  3. This is a timely post for me, as I’ve recently begun to think that I might be, might always have been, ambitious. Not in terms of climbing up a career ladder (I was late to get into an environment where that would have been an option anyway), but in terms of always having had a personal goal on the horizon — so that, while I wanted to have four kids, I also wanted to achieve a (Piano Performer’s) Associateship . . . and once I had done that, and built and maintained a studio for a decade or so while raising the kids, I started working to complete the BA I’d abandoned way earlier. Then I somehow needed (had the ambition!) to complete a Master’s, then a doctorate. . . And then I decided I should get a uni job and did. Never thought I was ambitious, though. But for some reason, lately, I’ve been thinking that might just because of the way the word’s been used (and could that have a gender bias? Um, just maybe ;-). . .
    Have to be careful not to hijack the comments section here, or I’d go on. And on, probably. Such a relevant and resonant post for me right now — thank you! Will be thinking about this (and listening to Alyson’s podcasts — thanks for the reminder. Something to do while I’m wide awake, jet-lagged, at 2:28, while my husband sleeps soundly, despite having been on the same flight!)

    1. You have achieved so many goals. You should be proud. I agree that the word ambition can be such a loaded word, depending on who’s using it. I had goals early on in my teaching career that I abandoned. Not for a high position in administration, but to work at the board level developing curriculum etc. Ha. Working on committees with some of the board curriculum consultants soon put paid to that. I was a bit disillusioned for a while, but I realized that working in a minor admin job (as a head) allowed me to see that the curriculum my team in my department and I developed was actually implemented in our classrooms. That was pretty cool. That and the fact that the teachers who worked in my department still look back on those years as a time when we were “really cooking”, so to speak.

  4. Yvonne Harrison

    I have never really thought about ambitious versus driven so I looked up the definition. Ambitious is defined as having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed (external?) and driven is defined as being compelled by the need to accomplish a goal; very hard working and “ambitious”. I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I just turned 65 and now that the shock has worn off I am at a crossroads of what is next. I, unfortunately, have behind me a lifetime of bad decisions and cannot afford to make more. I am, however, still excited about all the possibilities ahead. By the way, please excuse any mistakes with my punctuation. I’m sure the teacher in you is cringing. 🙂

    1. It’s interesting, to see how the definitions of ambition change depending on the source. One dictionary defined ambition as having to do with hard work and determination, another as having to do with the achievement of position, money, and power. Two pretty different interpretations, I think. Please don’t worry about punctuation! I second guess myself about commas all the time, and am forever checking grammar sources.

  5. Remembering things as I was coming up the ranks (nearing 70), it was interesting to see the difference between how people reacted to the phrase, an ambitious man vs. the phrase, an ambitious woman. Usually positive for a man and negative for a women. Actually doing the hard work for the sake of the work vs. the sake of oneself, as you noted, is sometimes missing in those who simply want a new title or more power (and who don’t mind stepping over a few bodies to attain it). On the other hand, the definition of driven is “relentlessly compelled by the need to accomplish a goal”. I perceive it to be an internal drive less directed at attaining (corporate/institutional/government) power as it is in attaining personal goals. Not that ambition or driven behavior in the extreme is particularly healthy.
    Doing a job very well (count me as driven in that department) did not mean a great deal in some places I worked given the number of people who continually screwed up, did sloppy work, or hijacked ideas/work of others and yet were promoted due to games they played–not the work they (should have) accomplished. The Peter Principle was/is clearly alive and well.

    1. You’re right about how the term applies to women vs men. And given the definition of “driven” you found… I think I’ll call myself “motivated” instead of “driven”. Ha.

  6. And after my effort not to hijack your comments — just back to say that I checked the etymology of “ambition” and it comes from the Latin “ambire” which apparently means to go around, with the particular sense of canvassing for votes. So. I guess I’ll reject my recent consideration of myself as having been ambitious, and use the word “driven” (which, however, seems more obsessive or compelled, honestly, than I see myself having been). I quite like Ella Luna’s distinction between “shoulds” and “musts” (The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion is the title of her book, which my daughter gave me a few years ago).
    I hope some of my insomniac, jetlag ramblings make sense. Once again, I very much enjoyed this post!

    1. Not hijacking, just along for the ride. Ha. I once had an older friend tell me not to be so attentive to all the “shoulds”… advice which I never forgot.

  7. Excellent post! This is definitely food for thought. I have never been ambitious, and share perfectionist tendencies to do any job well. At age 63, I feel driven to enhance my garden and read!

  8. Truly enjoyed this post. And someone else who has read Grainger! One of my favorites who never disappoints. Not too many of us have read him I fear. Glad for the heads up on his most recent and sorry to read it on a Kindle Unlimited sale.
    I agree with Wendy. We do need ambitions people but I myself have never been one. I am interested in so many things that narrowing it down to one thing to devote my life to was never in the cards.
    As for fishing husbands…. I sometimes travel with him but often do what you did this weekend and consider it time to myself well spent.

    1. I think he’s a good writer, and I’m happy to spread the word about his books. I’m with you on the solitary weekends while Hubby is fishing nirvana. Ha.

  9. Hmmm. This is an intriguing (and provocative) post. Ambitious vs. driven. Definitely worthy of making a distinction.

    I have always been driven, and I suspect (to my detriment), never ambitious. A bit more ambition would have yielded a more secure result of my drive to produce the highest quality result I possibly could.

    I live in a country where ambition (blind or otherwise) — and outstanding “sales” skills — typically lands you financial success. Drive may be a piece of what gets you there, but drive without ambition, generally, does not.

  10. I think my comment was lost in space… (It’s been one of those days.)

    Bref… You’ve given me an enormous amount to think about with this post, and possibly an answer to a question I’ve asked myself (about myself) many, many times.

    I am definitely driven – always have been – but not ambitious. (Never have been.) When my MBA friends were seeking VP positions by age 30, with my MBA under my arm, I wanted more opportunity and (still) to do excellent work. I am, and have always been, driven to excel at whatever I choose to do. But ambition has never been part of the equation, and maybe it is precisely the missing ingredient and one of the reasons that I am not (and never have been) where I’ve wanted to be.

    Thanks for this little light bulb moment.


  11. Had I been brave enough to follow my wish to be a writer, when I was very young, I am sure I would have been very ambitious. In fact, it’s quite likely that my ambitions made me afraid, if that makes sense.

    In my corporate career I wasn’t at all ambitious to start off, but I’d find myself in a job and then see what the people above me did and I’d think, “I want that.” Until I became a VP and then I had zero desire to go any higher. In fact I just wanted to do a good job without getting beaten up!

    1. I can totally understand that feeling. Being afraid that of getting beyond my abilities, of people thinking “Who does she think SHE is?” A common phrase used to bring others down when I was growing up. Teaching really helped me with that. Standing in front of 30+ teenagers can help one’s confidence… if it goes well. Ha.

  12. Thanks so much for the recommendation on Grainger’s books! I couldn’t put the first down and am now on the second- all fee with Amazon Prime- go figure! I am also deep into season 3 of Endeavour so I have police procedurals (and lead characters nearing retirement just like me!) on the brain! You might also like Miss Fisher mysteries (Roaring 20’s in Melbourne) – my husband and I are enjoying this series at a slower pace.

  13. Thank you for the Grainger recommendation (again why you’re my favorite blogger).I was just thinking yesterday what kind of mystery I like best and it occurred to me that I like police procedurals best. I have loved the Inspector Morse books and shows. Other authors I have enjoyed are Louise Penny, Sally Spencer, Cynthia Harrod-Eagle, Dorothy Simpson, Gwendoline Butler, Ian Rankin, Tanya French, Elizabeth George, P. D. James, Henning Markell and Deborah Crombie.I’m currently reading and enjoying Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series in order. As for ambition, now that I’m retired my ambition is to read, clear out my house, travel well and cook some great meals. Now I have to listen to some of those podcasts-a new world for me.

    1. Thanks, Cindy Lou. There are a couple of writers in your list I’ve added to my list. The new season of Endeavour starts this Sunday on American PBS… and we’re both excited. I almost love this prequel to Morse even better than the old Morse series.

      1. Yes, there’s something about the young Morse, still gaining experience and rather unformed. It is a great show, great writing and acting and sublime music.

  14. I always was driven, no question. I came to ambition when I realized, slowly, that the people around me were either not nearly as good or were faking it completely. Somewhat disgusted, I knew I could do better. Still I had doubts. I was at the top of my class in everything, but since so many of my classmates were high on drugs, I feared that meant nothing. So the summer before my senior year in high school, I checked out from the library a calculus textbook and worked through the whole thing, fearing that otherwise I would be over my head in the AP class. Instead, I got straight A’s and college credit. Since then, I’ve always taken calculated risks, knowing deep down I can do something but still worrying that I’m not good enough. When the boss at my workplace left, every man applied for his job. I didn’t–that doubt, even though I knew the guys were imposters/posers. The higher-ups offered me the job. It was hard, because all those guys had their noses bent out of shape, but at the same time it wasn’t that hard at all. The job was within my capabilities.
    I think too often people (men) in power exploit this hesitance on the part of women to be ambitious, even though they are driven. They dangle prizes/praise that activate the driven aspect, but they don’t go all the way and bestow the promotions (with titles and pay raises) that would accompany ambition.

    1. I think the thing that has galled me most throughout my working life is the unearned accolade. But I won’t get started on that. I might not ever shut up. Ha.

  15. Ann in Missouri

    Am I the only unself-conscious, unrepentant, happy ambitious commenter here? So far? 😉

    Yes, I’m driven. Always have been, still am, always will be. And the older I got, the more ambitious I became — for leadership positions, for “power” (as in, I’m the high school newspaper editor, so yes, I get to make that bloody decision!) and, of course, my drive and ambition was (cough!) intended to achieve the best possible outcomes for everyone! In other words, I’m a bit of a control freak.

    After graduate school, in the work-work world, performance standards were extraordinarily high. Teamwork was prized (you can’t achieve anything complicated working alone), so building and managing high-functioning teams was critical. Success was defined and measured by (1) research, new products, and new processes that disrupted old industries and built new ones and (2) growing revenue, clients, brands, and reputation. Of course, all these things are various of value. The way to achieve value is to elevate my own and others’ skills and to apply those skills as well as we could in service to our goals. Yeah, I know that’s a bit corporate-speakish, but it’s also how many industries work.

    I don’t recall ever *stepping on* or harming anyone to achieve those goals. However, I do recall a few people (both men and women) trying to do that to me. Consequently, I became very comfortable being heard, insisting I receive credit for my ideas and work, very good at building strong allies, and adept at not making powerful enemies.

    Just writing this has gotten my adrenaline flowing again, remembering some of the tough projects, stretch goals, impossible odds I enjoyed trying to best.

    But now, at 73 and retired, I have no interest in living that life anymore. I’m highly entertained now by other interests. But boy, did I love my ambitious, driven work life. I loved that game. I also loved winning. But I really, really liked the game! 🙂

    1. Well as a long time teacher-advisor for high school newspapers I guess it’s a good thing we never crossed paths in those roles. Ha.
      I never experienced the kind of work environment you did. But I think that working on a well run team gave me the most job satisfaction ever. Sadly in education, teams don’t always get to see their work implemented. I was lucky to have a great bunch of creative, hard-working teachers in my department and a principal who listened when we said what we wanted to do. I miss that part of my work. But not much else.

  16. The Peter Grainger books are available as downloadable audiobooks on hoopla, a digital media resource available at many public libraries. You can also watch a lot of BBC and other British TV on hoopla. And no waitlists!

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